Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Renegade Craft Fair: A celebration of all things handmade

Renegade Craft Fair / This annual event has become one of my favorite
San Francisco things to do.

The Renegade Craft Fair at San Francisco's Fort Mason is a celebration of all things handmade in a variety of media. Last weekend's annual Renegade event provided hundreds of artists and craft makers a chance to escape their studios and step into a relaxed, festive and lively atmosphere.

Since its debut in 2003, the Renegade Craft Fair has showcased the best and brightest in Etsy indie craft and design, and it's become a major player in a booming DIY (Do It Yourself) craft movement in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Each year, the Renegade Craft Fair visits seven U.S. cities (Austin, Brooklyn, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle) plus London. The San Francisco summer happening comes in mid-to-late July. I've been a Renegade Craft Fair goer for the past five summers, and it's become one of my favorite San Francisco things to do.

BambuEarth / Natural, sustainable, ethical, vegan, local
handmade soap.
From new and traditional to modern and innovative, there's always a diversity of art and style at the Renegade Craft Fair and this year was no different from the past. For me, I find it truly interesting to see what's new and hip in the areas of art, clothing, jewelry, photography, quilts, toys and other knick-knacks -- and to be able to meet and mingle with the artists behind these creations.

On Sunday, my wife and I were among thousands gathered inside both the Herbst Pavilion and the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason to see over 450 modern makers of art.

There were arts and crafts enthusiasts, a poetry store, media scouts and taste makers -- even savvy shoppers stocking up early on unique, artist-created gifts for the end of the year holidays.

Of the 2015 Renegade San Francisco craft makers, one in particular garnered my interest and attention: Jordan Graves, a young, twenty-something artist from Savannah, Ga., whose Repeat Offfender -- yes with 3 f's in Offfender -- whose multi-disciplinary approach to art "generates patterns with digital artifacts for surface design, jewelry, and motion graphics."

According to her website, the multidisciplinary work of Repeat Offfender grew out of Graves' work towards a B.F.A. degree in Motion Media Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Sprouted Spirals / 3D printed jewelry by Jordan Graves.
Graves greeted my wife and I with a cute and polite smile as we perused her creative and colorful stud earrings -- she calls them "Sprouted Spirals."

They came in a variety of cool colors, including: white, black, red, blue, pink, purple, orange and yellow.

We were excited and so was Graves.

I asked what inspired her art and without any hesitation, Graves answered my question with interest and enthusiasm by saying it was her interest in textile design combined with a passion for digital roots -- you know, mathematics. Thus, Graves' combination of interests morphed into her unique creation of 3D printed jewelry.

Perusing Graves' website for Repeat Offfender is not only enjoyable, it's also about taking a deeper look into how she bridges her motion graphics background into her work and to see what is influencing her new collections. It's all about happy bright colors.

Photographs: BambuEarth by Michael Dickens ©2015; Repeat Offfender booth and Sprouted Spirals courtesy of RepeatOfffender.com. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Yountville: Come for the food and wine, stay for the art

A New Spin / Napa Valley artist Freeland Tanner's 2014 sculpture is
comprised of Cedar and Redwood grape stakes and repurposed poplar wood.

The town of Yountville is quickly becoming synonymous with art as it is with food and wine. Look around and you'll see how the influences from vintner culture, wine industry, culinary and arts converge in this lovely destination situated along Highway 29 in the heart of California's Napa Valley, about 60 miles outside San Francisco.

Bouchon / One of Yountville's
 world-class dining experiences.
While French Laundry and Bouchon brought Michelin stars and accolades -- and helped transform Yountville into a world-class destination for food -- there's been a push to show a creative, artsy side in a very public and profound way thanks to the installation of outdoor sculptures. The output of artwork doting Yountville has been very inspiring and has helped turn this wine country town into an outdoor art gallery.

Balance by Sherry Tobin.
Locals or tourists who walk along Yountville's Washington Street, the town's main thoroughfare, will notice about three dozen pieces of outdoor sculpture. The town went on an art binge beginning about three years ago by installing sculptures by local artists and some internationally-known ones, too.

While some of the sculptures are subtle in their quality, most are quite colorful and grab one's attention. Each is a welcome sight and during a recent visit, I noticed, many were magnets for both serious photographers as well as tourists stopping to take selfies.

Trellis Way to the Sky
by Freeland Tanner.
Each sculpture is well signed with information such as title, artist and composition. And, best of all, each is for sale with a percentage of the sales benefitting the Yountville Arts Fund which helps provide continued support for arts related activities and events in Yountville.

As someone who has returned often to Yountville to enjoy its culinary aspects, at Bouchon as well as Ad Hoc and Redd Wood, I've seen the town evolve nicely over the past 20 years. Now, the outdoor sculptures have become an essential and enjoyable component of the Yountville experience just like the puff pastries and macarons at Bouchon Bakery.

Indeed, come for the food and wine, stay for the art.

All photographs by Michael Dickens © 2015.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

On baseball: At San Francisco's retro AT&T Park, free knothole area offers fans unique view of players and field

The Giants' AT&T Park / A jewel of a baseball park along San Francisco Bay.
Tickets to see the San Francisco Giants play along the water's edge of San Francisco Bay in their jewel of a baseball park, AT&T Park, are both pricey and tough to obtain. Winning three World Series during a five-year span easily caused the demand to exceed the supply.

So, the Giants offer a free standing room viewing area at AT&T Park. It's one-third of the view but for none of the price.

Indeed, it's a priceless experience that not only offers a unique view of the field -- close enough to smell the grass -- but also a chance to shout out a "hello" to Giants right fielder Hunter Pence.

The knothole area provides a viewing portal through a
chain-link fence into the Giants' ballpark.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, my wife and I took advantage of the opportunity to stroll up and stand in the "knothole" area under one of the three arches at the base of the 24-foot high brick wall in right field that provides a viewing portal through a chain-link fence into the Giants' ballpark.

The knothole area underneath the right field arcade is one of many retro features that arrived when AT&T Park (then known as Pac Bell Park) opened in 2000. None of the other 29 Major League ballparks across the country include such a viewing section as part of a built-in feature. From what I've learned, the idea behind the knothole area was to attract passersby to drop in from the adjoining promenade who might not otherwise be inclined to watch.

The view from the knothole / The Giants'
Hunter Pence at bat with Joe Panik on base.
There are few rules for watching from this area -- no cursing, no folding chairs, no alcohol, no pets -- and it can accommodate up to about 75 fans at a time.

When necessary, such as when this is a sought-out spot during the playoffs and World Series, fans are rotated in and out every three innings. On the day we visited, we could have stayed as long as we liked. The knothole area was only about one-third full.

There aren't many amenities, so if you plan to stay a while you may wish to bring along your own snacks or purchase something from the nearby Yard at McCovey Cove, which features a variety of food and beverage options.

With our backs facing the boardwalk along McCovey Cove, we stood and watched as various Giants players -- among them, Pence and Madison Bumgarner -- warmed up for the game.

Madison Bumgarner / Everyone wanted to take his picture.
Pence ran wind sprints across the outfield while Bumgarner, the MVP of the 2014 World Series, threw to battery mate Buster Posey in the Giants' bullpen. We also saw several other Giants players -- Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik and Mike Duffy -- come out on the field to run sprints and play catch.

At 1:05 p.m., it was "Game On." We stayed for the first inning and absorbed the view. Then, it was time to head into the breezy San Francisco afternoon in search of lunch and other adventures.

All photos by Michael Dickens © 2015.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

An imperfect rendition: "... how sweet the sound"

President Obama / An imperfect rendition of "Amazing Grace
brought the room to its feet and resonated with an entire nation.

Last Friday, President Obama moved a congregation -- and a nation -- when he broke out into spontaneous song, singing "Amazing Grace" at the conclusion of his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine slain members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina.

That President Obama broke out in an imperfect rendition of this most spiritual of American songs was so unexpected. His surprising ability to make the music connect reaffirmed for us that music is, indeed, a ministry, one of the deepest expressions of the Christian faith. 

"Music is almost to me an echo of the sounds of the divine world, and when you hear these sounds, it stirs something deeply spiritual within you," said Grammy-nominated gospel singer Wintley Phipps, who has sung for every president since Ronald Reagan and who sang at President Barack Obama's National Prayer Service following his inauguration. In a 2009 interview with PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly program, Phipps went on to say: "Music also is the most powerful way of impressing the human mind with hope."

In describing "Amazing Grace," the newsweekly magazine Time wrote: "Amazing Grace was written by an Englishman who in the early part of his life was an outspoken atheist, libertine, and slave trader. John Newton was born in London in 1725, the son of a Puritan mother and a stern ship commander father who took him to sea when he was 11 (“I am persuaded that he loved me but he seemed not willing that I should know it,” he later wrote).

"By 1745, Newton was enlisted in the slave trade, running captured slaves from Africa to, ironically, Charleston, S.C. After he rode out a storm at sea in 1748, he found his faith. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1764 and became an important voice in the English abolitionist movement. At that time he wrote the autobiographical 'Amazing Grace,' along with 280 other hymns."

President Obama embraced race and religion in his moving address in Charleston, saying: "As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we've been blind. He's given us the chance, where we've been lost, to find our best selves." He named each victim of the church shooting and declaring each "had grace."

At the conclusion of his eulogy, President Obama turned to "Amazing Grace" -- a go-to hymn at American funerals -- as a means of comforting the grieving families. It's been said that the African American spiritual teaches each of us that we're going to come up rough sides of mountains, and from time to time experience difficulties in our lives. However, we learn, faith gives us the ability to weather any storm.

"As the president segued from the words 'amazing grace' into the musical notes of 'Amazing Grace,' the audience members could be heard murmuring their surprise," wrote the Los Angeles Times. "So unlikely was it that a leader of the free world would try singing his way out of a eulogy that many weren't sure whether to believe he was. The fact that Obama's singing was a little off-key only seemed to help the cause, inspiring the audience to join in instead of just sitting back and listening."

Indeed, as we observed, President Obama's "Amazing Grace" moment showed us all what a little music could do in the right context. It was a moment in which he notably brought the room to its feet and resonated with an entire nation.

To see a video of President Obama singing "Amazing Grace":

To learn more about "Amazing Grace":

Photo: Courtesy of CNN.com and Google images.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

At the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015: It's win and go on or lose and go home for the Americans

At the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 / More than 50,000 fans --
mostly Americans -- cheer on Team USA against Nigeria at B.C. Place 

in Vancouver, B.C., Canada  on June 16.

The United States national football team advanced to the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 quarterfinals with a 2-0 victory Monday evening over Colombia. The Americans wore down an inferior opponent, Las Chicas Superpoderosas as the Columbians are nicknamedwhich played much of the second half with just 10 players, in this elimination-round match at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta.

The U.S. victory was a bit of a mixed-bag performance just like its other wins earlier in the month-long World Cup tournament being contested across the Canadian provinces from New Brunswick back east to British Columbia out west. I had the pleasure of witnessing Team USA's 1-0 triumph over Nigeria last week in Vancouver, B.C., with my wife and our longtime friends from Seattle, along with more than 50,000 -- mostly American -- football enthusiasts.

On Friday, the second-ranked Americans will face China for the first time at a World Cup since the July 1999 final, when Brandi Chastain buried a penalty kick at the Rose Bowl that brought the U.S its most recent title. Although the U.S. has dominated China in recent years -- undefeated in 24 matches dating to 2003 -- it hasn't escaped the shadow of 1999, a 16-year drought in which the Americans haven't managed to win another World Cup.

Megan Rapinoe / Team USA's midfielder
arguably has been their best player, but

will miss Friday's quarterfinal against China.
The U.S. will be without midfielder Megan Rapinoe, arguably its best player of the tournament, who has received one too many yellow cards in this World Cup. Ditto for midfielder Lauren Holiday. With the unsteady play of 35-year-old striker and all-time leading scorer Abby Wambach, who has blamed the artificial turf for her uneven performance, don't be surprised if coach Jill Ellis calls upon attackers Sydney Leroux and Christen Press, if she opts for the U.S. to play a pressing style. Some critics -- validly -- have argued that the U.S. offense hasn't been clicking, hasn't shown fluidity.

With 25 years' worth of World Cup experience on its roster, one thing Team USA has going for it is a stingy defense anchored by the outstanding play of goal keeper Hope Solo. For all the well-documented problems related to domestic violence she's faced off the field, on it she's been steady and focused, not surrendering a goal in the past 333 minutes since early in the first game against Australia.

Hope Solo /
Team USA's controversial goal keeper has not allowed
a goal in over 300 minutes. She has recorded three
consecutive shut outs. 
If the U.S. is to reach the last four and earn a return trip to Vancouver, site of next week's final, it needs to generate more offense. Whether it's been the result of being too predictable or uptight, six goals in four matches is not much for the Americans to gloat about. After a nice beginning, a 3-1 victory against Australia, the U.S. played to a 0-0 tie against Sweden and followed it with a 1-0 win over Nigeria. Meanwhile, quarterfinalists Germany has 19 goals and France 9. Those two teams, which meet later this week in Montreal, are on the same side of the bracket as the U.S. On the other side of the draw, there's host Canada, Australia, England and defending World Cup champion Japan.

Hopefully, the U.S. can find an offensive spark against China on Friday in Ottawa. Alex Morgan has shown much promise since returning from an injury,  and she scored one of the two U.S. goals against Colombia. There's not much room for error and, going forward, it's survival of the fittest. After all, the stakes have increased.

Team USA's Abby Wambach / "We're still a work in progress."
"There's no doubt in my mind that we'll be peaking at the right moment," midfielder Carli Lloyd recently said. "And that's the most important thing."

Wambach added: "We're still a work in progress.  I don't want to be peaking until we're standing on that top podium at the end of the tournament. That is the moment when everything comes together, when everything fits."

Now, it's win and go on or lose and go home for the Americans.

A postscript: On June 26 in Ottawa, Ontario, a Carli Lloyd header in the 51st minute enabled Team USA to beat China 1-0 and advance to next Tuesday's semifinal against top-seeded Germany. Earlier Friday in Montréal, Quebec, the top-seeded Germans prevailed over France on penalty kicks (5-4) after playing to a scoreless tie in overtime.

A second postscript: On Tuesday night in Montréal, Quebec, Carli Lloyd scored on a second-half penalty kick and assisted on another goal as Team USA defeated top-seeded Germany 2-0 to advance to Sunday's championship match. The U.S., which has not given up a goal in the past 513 minutes of World Cup play, will face Japan. It is a rematch of the 2011 championship game in Germany, in which Japan won on penalty kicks after playing to a 2-2 draw. The U.S. owns a 21-4-6 advantage over Japan.

A final postscript: A stunning first-half hat trick by Carli Lloyd in the game's first 16 minutes enabled the U.S. to beat rival Japan 5-2 to secure the 2015 Women's World Cup championship. It was the third World Cup title for the U.S. and first since 1999.

All photos by Michael Dickens © 2015. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Roland Garros: From inside the baselines, Wawrinka's moxie and power reigned during this Parisian fortnight

2015 French Open poster art by Chinese artist Du Zhenjun / 
Drawing upon his Asian roots and from contemporary Western art.

Each year in late spring, the French Open in Paris serves as a grading period -- a report card if you will -- for professional tennis. It's the second of the year's four Grand Slam events -- the others are the Australian Open in January, Wimbledon in late June and the U.S. Open in August near the end of summer  -- and all the big names in men's professional tennis came to famed Roland Garros to complete for the Coupe des Mousquetaires, or the Cup of the Musketeers.

A funny thing happened by the end of the red clay fortnight on Sunday: None of the elite Big Four -- Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray or Rafael Nadal -- won the Coupe. Instead, it was Stan Wawrinka, he of the funny plaid shorts and winner of one previous Grand Slam final -- the 2014 Australian Open -- who prevailed in come-from-behind fashion. At the end of the day, the Swiss raised the champion's trophy after beating Djokovic with moxie and precision power in four sets, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. A year ago, Wawrinka was a first-round loser. What a difference a year made for Stan the Man.

In leading up to Sunday's championship finale on Court Philippe Chatrier, three of the Big Four had fallen by the wayside: Federer was sent packing for Wimbledon in straight sets by Wawrinka in the quarterfinals; and Murray, the Scot who for the past year has been coached by French darling Amelie Mauresmo, took out David Ferrer in a tension-filled quarterfinal before he was stubbornly knocked out by Djokovic in a semifinal match that required two days to complete because of rain.

Meanwhile, last Wednesday, the much-anticipated men's singles quarterfinal match-up between World No. 1 Djokovic of Serbia and nine-time defending champion Nadal of Spain, who arrived in Paris as the sixth seed and whose usually-strong game on clay showing signs of weakness and fatigue, was won convincingly by Djokovic. He stunned Nadal in straight sets -- it wasn't even close -- and, thus, ended the King of Clay's reign in Paris.

What started two weeks ago with a 128-player draw played down to two by the last day: Djokovic, who only needed to win the French Open to complete a career Grand Slam, and Wawrinka, who has spent the past decade playing in the shadows of the more famous and acclaimed Swiss player, Federer. After Djokovic won the opening set 6-4, Wawrinka took his tennis to a new level by winning the next three sets -- playing "the match of my life" -- and, with it, the championship.

Stan Wawrinka /
2015 French Open champion
When the dust had settled on the famed Roland Garros stage, it was Wawrinka who dashed Djokovic's hopes of achieving a career grand slam. Afterwards, the 30-year-old Swiss walked into the interview room inside Court Philippe Chatrier. He hung a pair of his infamous plaid shorts over a table. No explanation was provided, just a sarcastic grin on his face. Later, when he was prompted to explain, Wawrinka said: "Everybody has been talking about these shorts since I put them on. I quite like them. Apparently I'm the only one. It's quite funny that they won the French Open."

Questionable fashion choices aside, Wawrinka was rock solid when it mattered and he showed against Djokovic that he was able to produce "big time tennis" by hitting 60 winners, no easy fete against the top player in the world. Djokovic had held a 17-3 lead over Wawrinka going into the final and had dominated the spring clay-court circuit by winning titles in Monte-Carlo and Rome. Wawrinka's world ranking improved over the fortnight from No. 9 to No. 4 with his French Open triumph, and he sealed the victory with a backhand winner.

"I'm very surprised at the way I finished the fourth set," admitted Wawrinka. "I was relaxed on my backhand side and I could hit some wonderful backhands. It's a rare feeling that you experience in a final against Djokovic. It's a great feeling.

"I'm still surprised that in two months I can win the French Open, because I wasn't in good shape after Monaco. It was a tough, tough moment for me. To say that now I won the French Open, it's something complete crazy."

Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka / 
During the trophy presentation.
When the final ended, Djokovic showed why he is always a class act in defeat. Pushed to tears, he paid full credit to Wawrinka in accepting the runner-up trophy during the on-court ceremony. It was his third final defeat on Court Philippe Chatrier, the others against Nadal.

Djokovic refused to use his own fatigue as a reason for losing. As a result of his forthright honesty, Djokovic received a prolonged standing ovation from the French crowd that was possibly the most emotional moment seen during a fortnight of tennis.

"Obviously was not easy to stand there as a runner-up again, but I lost to a better player who played some courageous tennis and deserved to win," said Djokovic, after his 28-match winning streak was ended by Wawrinka.

"I respect the appreciation the crowd showed me, and it was more or less the same situation like last year in (the) closing ceremony (after losing to Nadal). This is something that definitely gives me even more motivation to come back and keep on trying."

Djokovic continued: "There are two players who want to win this trophy, not just me. So I think people tend to create more of a story where it's just me.

"It feels like I'm the only player who wants to win this trophy and nobody wants to win it as much as I do. This is completely untrue. Every single player who is here, especially the top players, want to win this trophy as much as I do.

"Of course the finals of a grand slam and the grand slam I never won gives a special importance to my approach to the match. But I thought I started well. As I got into the match, that was not a major issue in terms of dealing with the pressure. It's just that he was better.

"At least I'm proud of the fight that I put into this match. I tried my best. It wasn't to be."

Photos: Courtesy of Getty Images; Google Images, 2015.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The joy of being an international -- and local -- sports fan

Chelsea Blues / Champions of the English Premier League.

What a week it's been to be an international -- and a local -- sports fan.

Let's see: Between the end to the marathon English Premier League football season in the U.K. and the start of the fortnight-plus French Open tennis championships in Paris on Sunday; the thrills and chills of the Stanley Cup in North American professional ice hockey; the slam dunk excitement of the NBA Conference Finals in American professional basketball; and the roar of the engines and the checkered flag of the Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco, there's been a little something for every sports fan to enjoy this week. Add to the mix, Major League Baseball with its pennant races taking shape here on my home soil, and there's just not enough hours in the day to watch everything being shown on TV or now made available for viewing via our smartphones.

But it's been fun trying.

Thanks to the difference in time zones between California where I reside and the rest of the world, it seems there's sporting events going on at all hours of the day and night. And, thanks to social media platforms like Facebook, I've been able to intelligently discuss international sports like English football with enthusiasts throughout the U.K. and beyond, and French Open tennis with like-minded friends throughout Europe and North Africa, from countries such as Belgium, Serbia, Algeria and Tunisia.

Recently, on my Facebook timeline, I posted:

"Congratulations to the Chelsea Blues on winning the 2014-15 English Premier League title. On Sunday, Chelsea closed out its championship season with a 3-1 victory over Sunderland at Stamford Bridge thanks to a pair of goals by Loic Remy. In the first half, Didier Drogba as carried off the field to a hero's welcome by his teammates after playing the first 30 minutes in his final Chelsea match. After the final whistle, Chelsea was presented with the Premier League trophy. The Blues won the EPL by eight points over Manchester City. Cheers."

A day later, a friend from Ivybridge, U.K., replied: "I'm amazed at your knowledge of Premier League football, Michael, especially Chelsea. I'm a lifelong supporter!"

As it turns out, I've been a Chelsea fan for about the past five years or so, thanks to some longtime sports fan friends of mine in Seattle, which is as much an international football hotbed as any city in the U.S. Additionally, I like the team's colors (royal blue); the charismatic personality of the club's manager, José Mourinho; and, I think their home pitch that's located in a borough west of London has a pretty cool name, Stamford Bridge. Plus, the Blues' roster has a nice mixture of international (Didier Drogba, Eden Hazard, Willian) and English-grown talent (John Terry).

As EPL matches have become more available on American TV -- here, they're broadcast on NBC Sports Network, making international football a weekend staple -- it's easier to follow the Blues and to watch other English teams, too. I think there are a lot of international football fans in the U.S. that follow the Premier League and I know others elsewhere in the world that are supporters -- a friend of mine in Morocco is a fan of Chelsea-rival Arsenal -- and, of course, interest also peaks during World Cup years, too.

Thanks to the EPL's increased exposure in America, watching Chelsea and other teams like Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur has become a nice way to enjoy weekend breakfast for me. Being on the West Coast, matches start as early as 4:45 a.m. (where it's eight hours later in the U.K.) with most of the best matches shown at 7 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. my time.

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic /
He's favored to win his first French Open championship.
Meanwhile, the nine-hour time difference between San Francisco and Paris means the French Open tennis begins airing on ESPN2 at 2 a.m. while much of the West Coast is still asleep when it's 11 a.m. at Roland Garros. Heck, on the East Coast it's only 5 a.m., which is still awfully early to be watching sport on TV. The second Grand Slam event of the calendar year is being broadcast over-the-air in the U.S. by ESPN2, TennisChannel and NBC and on mobile platforms via WatchESPN, so there's plenty of tennis available to watch around the clock, live and on replay. And, thanks to the Internet, I've been able to keep up with the French Open via ESPN. com, Sports Illustrated (SI.com), Sport360.com (an impressive world sports daily based in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. that I recently became acquainted with thanks to their tennis coverage), and in print via The New York Times. 

By all accounts, World No. 1 Novak Djokovic is the favorite to win his first French Open title that is played on red clay, which would complete a career Grand Slam for him. Speaking of tennis, I contribute to and participate in some tennis chat groups on Facebook. One is comprised mostly of European and North African fans, many who are supporters of Djokovic and Roger Federer; another that's worldwide and vocal and made up of passionate fans of Rafael Nadal, the nine-time French Open champion; and a third consisting of loyal fans of Tunisia's Malek Jaziri, the top Arab player in the world.

Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors / NBA MVP.
Closer to home, the NBA and NHL playoffs have been playing out day-by-day like a blockbuster motion picture drama the past month. On Tuesday night, LeBron James, nicknamed "the King," punched his ticket to the NBA Finals for a fifth straight year as he led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a four-game sweep of the Atlanta Hawks in a rout. Locally, I have a vested interest in our hometown pro basketball team, the Golden State Warriors, who simply have been the best in the NBA this season. They boast both the most valuable player of the league in Stephen Curry as well as one of the brightest coaching minds in the game in Steve Kerr.

The Warriors, who closed out their Western Conference Finals series against the Houston Rockets with a satisfying 104-90 victory at Oracle Arena in Oakland on Wednesday night, are just four victories away from winning their first NBA championship in 40 years.

When I wrote about Kerr and the Warriors in December, I noted that their early-season success was a work in progress that had the potential to become a best-seller.  I still believe it, and the team has become the darlings of both the Bay Area and the basketball world. Beating "King" James in the NBA Finals would be a fitting ending to what has been a truly remarkable season.

No matter what the sport, enthusiastic sports fans are the common ingredient. Thanks to modern technology and social media that allows us to watch and follow sports 24/7, there is no better time than now to enjoy being an international -- and local -- sports fan.

Photos: Courtesy of Chelsea Football Club Facebook page; Roland Garros Facebook page, Golden State Warriors Facebook page.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Botticelli to Braque: Highlighting the great and the familiar

Sandro Botticelli / The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ 

Sandro Botticelli was one of the most celebrated artists of the Early Renaissance, which was known as a golden age of artistic painting in Italy. His 1485 masterpiece, "The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child," welcomes museum-goers to the "Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland" exhibition on display at the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco through the end of May. 

Sir Henry Raeburn /
Skating on Duddingston Loch.
The depth and breadth of "Botticelli to Braque" spans more than 400 years of artistic production and the 55 paintings shown in the red-walled Herbst Exhibition Galleries highlight works by many great and familiar painters from the Renaissance to the early 20th century. In addition to Botticelli, the collection includes masterpieces by Diego Velázquez, Johannes Vermer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Sir Henry Raeburn, Frederic Edwin Church, Claude Monet, Paul Gaugin, Georges Seurat, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

The lender of these impressive works of art is the Scottish National Art Collection, which has linked three Edinburgh institutions that contributed to the show: the Scottish National Gallery, Scottish National Portrait Gallery and Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

There is always a lot to learn and absorb from seeing any art exhibition, and I became fascinated from the very beginning of "Botticelli to Braque" after viewing "The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child". Afterwards, I researched Botticelli's tempera and learned this: The Italian painter drew inspiration from the work of Filippo Lippi, and it's unusual because he painted his masterpiece on canvas not wood and the Christ Child was rarely portrayed asleep.

"This variation could be interpreted as a reminder of Christ's death," according to nationalgalleries.org, the National Galleries of Scotland's website. "His future suffering for Mankind may also be symbolized by the detailed plants and fruits. The red strawberries, for example, may refer to Christ's blood. They also complement the beautiful rose bower which forms an 'enclosed garden', a symbol of the Virgin derived from the Old Testament Song of Solomon."

Johannes Vermeer / Christ in the House
of Martha and Mary.
Meanwhile, of the 36 paintings by the Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer that are known to still exist in the world, "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary" is the largest one and the only one that illustrates a biblical subject. Vermeer is one of my favorite artists and I looked forward to seeing his contribution to the "Botticelli to Braque" exhibition. After all, any Vermeer is worth seeing.

Vermeer (1632-1675), who was regarded as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age, was known for painting quiet human interaction, and in "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary" (ca. 1654-1655), he depicts the story of Saint Luke's Gospel (10:38-42) that tells of Christ's visit to the sister's house.

According to nationalgalleries.org, "Christ praised Mary's willingness to sit and listen to his teachings, unlike Martha who was preoccupied with housekeeping. The strong play of shadow and light, the characterization of the figures and broad handling of paint were probably inspired by the work of artists from Utrecht, who in turn were influenced by Caravaggio's art."

Rembrandt van Rijn /
Self portrait, aged 51.
When the "Botticelli to Braque" exhibition opened in March, San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker wrote: "An art historian might plot many lines through the selection of paintings on view, tracing the secularization of subject matter, or the evolution of patronage. But the show's most entwining intellectual thread may be the very question of representational fidelity.

"Why, besides the clerical demand of compelling faith, did what we think of as realism matter so much that it brought forth prodigies of depiction such as Vermeer, Rembrandt and Diego Velazquez?"

Baker's conclusion: "Take any direction through "Botticelli to Braque" and prepare to be blindsided by artistic miracles."

Photos: Courtesy of nationalgalleries.org.

Friday, May 15, 2015

In celebration of reading and writing for a cause, a Berkeley library becomes a literary café for a day

Tomorrow, I'll be participating in the WriterCoach Connection's seventh annual Read-and-Write-a-Thon. Beginning at 8 a.m. and continuing for 10 consecutive hours, volunteers, students and supporters -- including yours truly -- will share their love of the written and spoken word in the Library at Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley. 

Imagine a library transformed into a literary café ... 

This will be my third Read-and-Write-a-Thon.
At around 9:20 a.m. Saturday morning, I'll be reading from The Children of Willesden Lane, a memoir of music, love and survival, written by Mona Golabek, which became a one-woman play that recently enjoyed a successful run at the Berkeley Rep earlier this year. 

A backstory ...

As many of you know, since 2013, I've been involved with WriterCoach Connection, a non-profit program now in its 15th year. I'm one of more than 700 volunteers working one-on-one with middle- and high-school kids. We are now coaching in 11 schools throughout the East Bay. It's a remarkable program, winning rave reviews from teachers as well from kids. 

This year, I have been working individually with a variety of seventh and eighth grade students at Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley. My students represent a microcosm of the school's student body -- black, white, Asian, Hispanic -- and of the city of Berkeley, too. It has been a uniquely rewarding experience to see my students become more critical thinkers and confident writers.

My goal as a writing coach is simple and straight-forward, yet heartfelt: to help strengthen a student's writing skills and help them develop their ideas. And, through the use of positive encouragement and showing care, I believe I am making a difference in each student's educational development.

We believe all students can discover the power and richness of their own voices and learn to communicate their ideas with clarity, confidence and pride. Most important to me is that WCC gives more than 2,200 students undivided, positive attention, and for many of those students, it's the only time they ever get that from an adult.

In my first Read-and-Write-a-Thon experience,
I read an essay by humorist Calvin Trillin.
This year marks my third year to participate in the Read-and-Write-a-Thon. Two years ago, I read from humorist Calvin Trillin and last year I chose a baseball essay by Roger Angell. The Read-and-Write-a-Thon is our major fundraiser of the year and helps bridges the gap between what the program costs and what we can raise from school budgets and grants. And this is where you can help:

I'm writing to ask if you might support me, our readers, and this wonderful program by sponsoring our Read-and-Write-a-Thon.

If you can help, please go to www.writercoachconnection.org, click on the Read-and-Write-a-Thon banner, and you'll land on our fundraising page.

Whatever you can give, thank you so much for keeping us going. Those 2,200 kids, my fellow volunteer coaches, and dozens of sainted English teachers thank you, too. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Stephen Curry: MVP season is summed up in passionate 'thank you' speech to his teammates, family and fans

Stephen Curry / A unique combination of talent and humility.

Watching Stephen Curry win the NBA's Most Valuable Player Award this week -- the league's highest honor -- reminded me of the values of shooting, screening, cutting and passing he's shown throughout what has been a truly remarkable season. Curry, who stars for the Golden State Warriors, my hometown team, was the best player on basketball's best team.

Curry, the Warriors' first MVP since Wilt Chamberlain won in 1960, is a sharpshooting guard on a team that won a league-best 67 of 82 regular season games and is 5-1 in the playoffs so far. He is part of a very deep and very well-coached team, the marquee player that Golden State has built its team around.

Curry's memorable season statistics were dazzling and reflected his value to his team. He was sixth in the league in scoring (23.8 points per game), sixth in assists (7.7 per game ), third in three-point shooting (44.3 percent), first in free-throw shooting (91.4 percent), and fourth in steals (2.04 per game).

At a press conference in an Oakland, Calif. ballroom in front of about 500 friends, family and teammates on Monday, the diminutive (6-foot-3, 180 pounds) Curry shared the lessons that perseverance, faith and confidence played. He took the time to thank each of his teammates individually in his MVP speech and choked up when he talked about his father, former NBA guard Dell Curry, as his role model.

Among the words which Curry's Warrior teammates used to describe him: genuine. And Steve Kerr, his coach, called Curry a unique combination of talent and humility. "The way he carries himself, his demeanor," said Kerr.

Curry said he would donate his MVP prize car to the East Oakland Youth Development Center.

Among the highlights of Curry's speech, which focused on the importance of team:

"We’ll remember this year no matter how it finishes, really.  But we have a huge goal in mind this year, and we’ll be able to talk about it for years to come.

"Every time we think of this moment we’ll talk about it and moments that hopefully will happen in a couple of months, it will all mean so much to us. How much sacrifice we’ve put into it, how much work, just the consistency that it takes to get to where we are.  It takes all 14 guys.  You can’t have one bad apple in this equation, and we don’t.

"So we’re truly grateful.  I’m grateful to have this team behind me.  This is not possible without you guys.  I want everybody to get a fingerprint on that so I can remember who I rolled with during this year, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.

"All right.  I’ve been long‑winded, but this is the last part.  I’ve talked about faith, passion, and the drive with the guys that I’ve been around and the guys that surround me every single day.  But a part of that is having the will to succeed.  Knowing that you’ve put the work in and have the confidence to let it show.  What I tell people is be the best version of yourself in anything that you do.

"You don’t have to live anybody else’s story.  Sometimes people make it seem like you have to have certain prerequisites or a crazy life story in order to be successful in this world.  But the truth is you really don’t.  It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you have or don’t have, what you lack or what you have too much of, but all you need to have is faith in God, an undying passion for what you do and what you choose to do in this life, and a relentless drive and the will to do whatever it takes to be successful in whatever you put your mind to."

Finally, after nearly 40 minutes, Curry summed up his speech by sharing a bit of advice and wisdom from the heart:

"Make sure you live in the moment and work your butt off every single day, and I hope I inspire people all around the world to just be themselves, be humble, and be grateful for all the blessings in your life.  I’m truly honored to be your MVP this year.  Thank you very much."

Photo: Courtesy of Google Images.